BEN ALLISON QUARTET
WAMC Linda Norris Auditorium
September 8, 2006
by J Hunter
Ben Allison listens to the Carpenters. (Super cheesy, he admits.) Ron Horton puts Al Hirt on the same level as Louis Armstrong. Gerald Cleaver's first influences on drums were John Bonham and Ringo Starr. Steve Cardenas' high school big band worked out of a chart book that was three inches thick
These (admittedly out-of-context) facts are just a few moments from a very rich evening, as the Ben Allison Quartet kicked off WAMC's Evening With The Artist series at The Linda. Combining a straight concert date (recorded for later broadcast) with a post-show question-and-answer session, WAMC looks to build off PlanetArts/one2one's musical education series at Kinderhook's late, lamented North Pointe Cultural Arts Center. If this concert was an indicator of future shows, this could be one of the most valuable concert series the Capital Region has seen in some time.
Allison demonstrated his percussive aesthetic as soon as he came onstage. Plucking the bottom of the strings on his double bass, Allison set up a marimba-like sound that led his partners into Four Folk Songs. (Four folk songs put together, he deadpanned later. Catchy title.) Cardenas stepped in next, playing bell-like electric guitar that added to the swirling nature of the tune as he fell into formation with Horton's unmuted trumpet. The suite swung from a frenetic, dissonant pace to a slow, almost meditative beat, and then went off in a third direction. Allison and company brought us through the changes without a scratch.
The band then went into Green Al - a loping, almost sneaky tune that dovetailed perfectly with Tricky Dick, Allison's ode to the Vice President. The jarring undertone of this and other songs from Allison's latest disc, the politically charged Cowboy Justice (Palmetto), ran through the entire set, driven primarily by Cardenas' fuzzed-up guitar (made fuzzier by a malfunctioning speaker) and Horton's almost-vocal horn; on Tricky Dick and on the ear-piercing closer Emergency, Horton's solos sounded like the snarl of a hungry monster demanding to be fed. With no saxophone or piano to soften the blows, you're kept in a state of perpetual unease, even as you marvel at the great depth and cinematic quality of Allison's compositions.
I've caught the Allison Quartet twice this year, and have seen a different drummer each time. Cleaver held the chair this evening, and he meshed with the other three musicians like they'd been touring for months. Cleaver's jumping solo on Blabbermouth belied Horton's mournful trumpet and Cardenas' soft, raindrop-like fretwork, and his concentration during his more crashing moments was that of a martial artist focusing on the exact point where the board will not just break, but shatter into a million pieces.
Allison played the set from the back of the stage, standing in the shadows like just another bass player. Then I saw the lights that spotlit Cardenas and Horton also lit up Allison's solo hand, where the rubber truly meets the road with his cross-fingered style. It's a shame he didn't allow himself to be fully illuminated, because the man is animated, his stance flexing and changing with each tune. At one point, Allison was banging his head like a tweaked-out Metallica fan, practically doing a box step as Cardenas' guitar wailed. The passion that fills his music washes over you in waves as he pushes the music and his players just a little harder.
As amazing as the music was, the Q&A was just as outstanding. Spanning almost an hour, all four musicians sat on the edge of the stage, freely sharing their respective histories and musical paths. All four players started out listening and playing rock (If you couldn't tell, Allison added innocently), with both Cleaver and Horton coming from musical families where the father passed the love of his instrument to the son. They talked about discovering people like Ornette Coleman, Wes Montgomery, Tony Williams, Ruby Braff, and a host of others. Allison took a moment to mourn Dewey Redman, who died earlier in the week.
For me, the best moment was when Allison and Cardenas made pointed comments about the danger that jazz is becoming a repertory art form, with a performance aesthetic akin to European classical music. Jazz musicians are their own worst enemy in that regard, Allison asserted. Some of the stuff we do is a reaction to that
I thought the tradition was to be creative, Cardenas put in.
From that standpoint, the Ben Allison Quartet is one of the most traditional bands you'll ever see.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.